The son of a Wallsend shipyard worker, Dr Colin Herron wasn’t encouraged to think big.
“If you became a foreman in the shipyards, that was the pinnacle of your career,” he recalls. “It was isolationism – not having the web, not knowing what was going on.
“It wasn’t my parents’ fault – that’s how they were brought up – but it was a case of: you went to the shipyard, you went to the mines, or, like me, you went into supply for the automotive industry.”
Still, there was a curiosity in Colin that couldn’t be crushed by his conditioning, and, possessed with a knack for “harebrained ideas, some of which come off”, he’s gone from leaving school with “five dodgy O-levels” to fitting a masters and a PhD around life with a young family.
Following a 17-year career at Nissan, he now also finds himself at the helm of one the North East’s – if not the UK’s – most important businesses when it comes to the brave new world of renewable energy technology.
Zero Carbon Futures, which is approaching its second birthday, has now received £13m of orders for the installation of electric car charging posts, a business it has managed to strengthen throughout Europe and which it may be on the cusp of expanding further.
The not-for-profit organisation is also looking to the future – and the potential for the North East is staggering, Colin says.
Already, the region is involved in a crucial national project called My Electric Avenue, whereby clusters of 10 houses – including one group in Wylam and one in South Shields - agree to charge their vehicles at the same time each evening to test the impact on the grid.
Zero Carbon futures, however, is going further and looking at a concept called “vehicle-to-home” whereby cars are plugged in not to be charged themselves but to actually charge the house.
“I’m working with Gateshead College to look at the smart home,” Colin says. “What is the home of the future? How does it integrate with energy production, energy storage, all those kinds of things.
“The onset of new technology like the Nissan Leaf has just opened so many new prospects. If the region gets it now, we can develop a new economy and a new way of thinking around this.”
And that’s what Zero Carbon Futures is about – the “glue” component, as Colin puts it, that will bring together all the strands needed for a full-scale low carbon revolution.
At the moment, so-called non-contact charging, whereby vehicles are powered simply by driving on to a pad, is a major topic, as is dynamic charging, an even more sci-fi-esque phenomenon whereby cars would be powered by cables under roads.
Perhaps better known, there are also big ideas around hydrogen power and Colin is determined to bring the first generation of hydrogen vehicles to the region.
“Hydrogen, believe it or not, is a waste product,” he says. “It’s a by-product of the chemical industry on Teesside, so, as far as I’m concerned, if Nissan is going to make a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in Europe, where’s it going to build it?
“But it will only be built at Sunderland if we can repeat what we did with electric vehicles – that is, to make it an obvious choice. We need to have the infrastructure in place and we need to have the skills.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Colin would be making a case for the region on an international scale – some feat for the Wallsend lad who got his first taste for the industry through an apprenticeship with George Angus on the Coast Road, a business which made seals for engines in the automotive industry.
Even back then, though, the roots of Colin’s inquisitiveness were taking hold.
“The one thing I learned then – although I didn’t realise I was learning – was how bad our industry was,” he recalls.
“It was something that caught my interest. I simply knew there was a better way, but I didn’t know what it was.”
It took a few years, an HND in mechanical engineering and a job in Nissan’s quality department before he got an inkling.
“I joined Nissan out of curiosity, to see how they did it,” he says. “It was a completely different world.”
After around three years, he moved to engineering and new product development, then eventually to supplier development.
During this time, he also managed to squeeze in a MSc at the Open University and a PhD at Newcastle, which allowed him, he says, to distil and analyse much of what he had witnessed throughout his career.
“My professor opened my eyes and made me think reflectively about what I’d seen and heard,” he says.
“To be honest, it’s only the phD and the depth of it that really allows you the freedom to look at these things.”
During his last couple of years with Nissan, Colin was on secondment to One North East, the winding-up of which indirectly led to his new role.
The regional development agency had been tasked with the introduction of charging posts at around the same time Nissan was considering where to build its revolutionary Leaf electric car.
“The Government had eight trial areas to put them in,” Colin said.
“When we made our bid, we were one of the first three, so we put our charging posts in and we were without exception the most successful region.
“Our bid allowed us to go back to Nissan and say, ‘We’re going to put 1,100 charging points in the region’.
“We said we’d open a test track to regional companies developing this technology, we’ll create a skills academy, we’ll do all these things to help you build this vehicle in this region.”
Unfortunately, One North East met its demise before assigned duration of the project, so Colin had some quick thinking to do.
But given the calibre of the team he had assembled, there was an opportunity to keep momentum going.
“I was given one year to turn what they were doing into a commercial proposition or they would have been made redundant,” he said.
“I had 12 months to make it viable and we did – we transitioned into actually being paid on a commercial basis to install these things.”
Since then, the business has been run as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Gateshead College and driving forward the talent of the future is top among Colin’s top priorities.
Outside of work, meanwhile, he’s up on at 5am on Sunday mornings to help at the People’s Kitchen charity in Newcastle.
Does he have a strong social conscience then?
“Yes, but I know there’s only so much I can do.
“I’m not going to make any major change by feeding people in the People’s Kitchen, other than making their lives a bit more comfortable.
“But what I can do, through my skills, is assist the economy to try to stop people turning up at the Kitchen on a Sunday morning in the first place.”
If there a key to doing such business well, he adds, it’s doing what you say you’ll do and doing it when you say you’ll do it.
For Colin, though, people always come first.
“Don’t try to kill yourself to achieve something,” he says.
“It’s not worth it.
“There’s always another way and if you’ve an open-minded approach, you’ll find it.
“The most important thing is people and their attitude.
“If you build the right team, it can deliver anything.”